St. Croix River Kayaking: Wildlife to See

7-minute read

Greg Seitz is an avid kayaker and dedicated supporter of the St Croix River that forms part of the border between Wisconsin and Minnesota. He tells us why this river provides ideal wildlife habitat and what paddlers can expect to see on their journey downriver.

dragonfly sits on kayak on the river

A twelve-spotted skimmer dragonfly takes a break on Greg’s kayak

The St. Croix River begins in northwest Wisconsin and flows 169 miles before eventually joining the Mississippi River. The Lower St Croix is broad and busy with motorboat traffic. But the Upper and Middle sections are wonderful for paddlers of all kinds—kayakers, canoeists and paddleboarders.

The entire river plus Wisconsin’s Namekagon River make up the Saint Croix National Scenic Riverway, presided over by the National Park Service.

Day trips are very popular on several stretches of the river, especially because there’s easy access from the nearby Twin Cities metro area of Minneapolis and Saint Paul. Overnight/multi-day trips are also an option, with many campsites available along both sides of the riverbank.

Greg Seitz loves the St. Croix River, having grown up on its banks in Stillwater, Minnesota. In fact, he created a website called St. Croix 360 that’s dedicated to river news and stewardship. He paddles the river frequently, exploring many of its miles over the years and enjoying the plethora of wildlife along its shores.

We asked Greg to tell us more about kayaking, canoeing and paddleboarding one of America’s treasures and the kinds of wildlife he encounters. Here’s our interview with him:

AQUA BOUND: Why is the St. Croix River such a special place for kayaking?

GREG: The river is perfect for paddlers. For starters, the water is clean and the banks are mostly undeveloped. You can stop and swim on countless sandbars and get a real sense of wild nature.

Greg Seitz kayaks on the St Croix River

Greg Seitz out on one of his many St Croix kayaking excursions (photo by Kerri Kolstad)
I love that there are many different types of river, so there's something for everyone. I would stay off the lower river—Stillwater and below—on the weekends because there are lots of big powerboats. But other than that, it's a paddler's paradise.

There are placid sections for first-timers, especially between Taylors Falls and Marine on St. Croix. There’s swift water on the upper river, and some of the tributaries can have pretty big whitewater. So you can satisfy your sense of adventure in a remote place or get out for a quick paddle on easy water.

AB: What kinds of wildlife can a kayaker expect to see while they’re on the St. Croix?

GREG: The wildlife is another big thing that makes the St. Croix so great. It has incredible habitat for many species, is a major route for migrating birds and there are lots of restored natural areas along the river.

In the lower 50 miles, you can find prothonotary warblers, which are brilliant yellow birds that nest in the floodplain forest. I usually see them from May through July, and I've only ever seen them from the seat of a canoe or kayak. It’s the perfect way to quietly explore their habitat.

prothonotary warbler along the St Croix riverbank

Prothonotary warblers nest in the St. Croix’s floodplain

In August and September, cardinal flowers bloom. It’s the brightest, reddest flower imaginable.

Lake sturgeon only exist in a fraction of their original range, and the St. Croix has a very healthy population. When the water is low and clear and the sun is bright, you can even see them from your canoe or kayak as you float over.

You can also see lots of great blue and green herons and egrets, many types of ducks—especially during migration—and osprey and bald eagles.

 green heron stands on a fallen tree

Green herons (shown here), egrets and great blue herons all frequent the river

 soaring osprey with blue sky and clouds behind

An osprey soars overhead

There are otters and beavers, though I find they are mostly nocturnal and rarely seen in daylight—so it's fun when I do spot one.

I also love dragonflies and there are some really rare ones that need clean water like the St. Croix. There's even a species named after the river, the St. Croix Snaketail, that can be seen in June.

AB: What’s the best strategy for spotting wildlife?

GREG: Early mornings in early summer are amazing for the birds and most wildlife. You can paddle along and hear dozens of species singing as they seek mates, defend territory and celebrate the sunrise. It can mean getting on the water at 5:00 am, but I find it worth waking up to experience.

It's also a numbers game. Getting out there as often as possible and spending as much time on the water as possible is a big part of seeing critters.

Research is also helpful. You could start with the list of Important Bird Areas along the river, and then learn about when and where to see certain species. Two websites I recommend are Wisconsin Important Bird Areas and Audubon Minnesota with their page of Important Bird Areas.

AB: How can kayakers, canoeists and SUPers help support the St. Croix and its wildlife habitat?

GREG: There’s a ton of work that goes into protecting the river. It's beautiful and clean because of a lot of nonprofits, government agencies, private landowners, elected officials and advocates, and regular people who often toil in obscurity.

It's because of dedicated people that the water is clean, the wildlife habitat is abundant, the banks are undeveloped and recreation facilities are available. It's also worth noting that tax dollars have paid for a lot of protection, so hopefully everyone can take pride in that.

Of course, the river's past protection is no predictor of its future preservation. There are constant threats to the things that make it special—from nutrient-rich runoff to riverside development. There’s a big hog farm proposed near the upper St. Croix and other large-scale pollution risks.

All who enjoy the St. Croix should try to do something to help protect it, whether it’s donating, volunteering, calling elected officials or whatever works for them.

a group of kayakers on the St Croix River in early spring

A kayak tour explores the St. Croix in early spring in high water

Last but not least, please take good care of the river! Bring trash home, leave wildlife alone, watch your step. Stay curious, keep your voice down and do lots of listening.

Certain sections can get pretty crowded at times, so being respectful of each other and the river is mandatory. Plan ahead and be prepared, because people get in trouble out there every year.

All of those practices are just other parts of experiencing and enjoying the river. We’re blips in the long history of this waterway, so travel lightly. And always use Aqua Bound or Bending Branches paddles. :)

Kayaking the St. Croix River

If you’d like to kayak, canoe or paddleboard the St. Croix River, a great first step is to explore the National Park Service’s section about the National Scenic Riverway. You’ll find tons of information, maps, camping info, and trip planning details.

There are a handful of private outfitters along the river that can set you up with rental boats and shuttle service.

group of kayakers along the riverbank

Look and listen for the local wildlife as you paddle

If you’d like a guided tour of the St. Croix, Greg recommends Wahoo Adventures. He partnered with them through St. Croix 360 for monthly kayak trips in 2021 and 2022 that focused on wildlife and the history of the area. But they’ve unfortunately faced township zoning issues recently. They hope to be able to resume these tours someday, but in the meantime, Wahoo Adventures offers other trips on the river you’ll love, too.

Greg Seitz is a writer and river bum. In 2011 he created St. Croix 360, a website dedicated to river news and stewardship, which he continues to operate thanks to reader support. Greg grew up in Stillwater and today lives in May Township, Minnesota with his wife, two children and dog.

Our thanks to Greg for his time and photos! All photos courtesy of Greg Seitz.

Do you have paddle questions our friendly Customer Service Team can help you with today? Contact them: 715-755-3405 • [email protected]

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